STRAUSS: The Egyptian Helen
STRAUSS: The Egyptian
The Egyptian Helen was another collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl; they already had worked together on Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). They considered combining their talents on a "light" opera, possibly even an operetta, with ironic treatment of a mythological theme. The two disagreed about various aspects of the project and Helen wasn't completed until 1927, premiered the following year in Dresden. Reception was cool—understandably so. For more on the puzzling plot, see comments on the Vienna State Opera live performance from 1970 reviewed on this site.
The convoluted story is peculiar from both musical and dramatic views. The big tune in the act two opening aria ("Zweite Brautnacht!") is suggested in act one and repeated in act two. But why isn't there a big scene for Menelas in which he can show his confusion over the real and imagined, and why no impassioned love duet between him and Helen, perhaps to end the first act? But what exists is typical Strauss, perhaps without the passion and big tunes of its predecessor, Die Frau ohne Schatten. You'll hear touches of Salome (some of Altair's music has the nobility of Strauss's music for Jokanaan), brief brass quotes from Elektra, and a continuous carpet of sound that reaches considerable grandeur by the end of the last act. Unfortunately the listener cannot take too seriously an opera about a beautiful, vain, selfish woman who doesn't seem a bit concerned about all the havoc and deaths she has caused, and a plot in which much time is devoted to deciding which potion to drink, with a bunch of young men willing to die because Helen is so beautiful—and a group of laughing elfs giving commentary.
The Telarc is a live recording made in Avery Fischer Hall Oct. 6, 2002, a concert presentation which was part of the Lincoln Center Presents Great Performers series. Of greatest interest is Deborah Voight as Helen. Recently she has scored great success at the Met as Chrysothemis in Strauss' Elektra, and at the Vienna State Opera received a 25-minute standing ovation after her first Isolde (May 2003). She surely has the notes for Helen, easily soaring to the climax of the big act two aria. Carl Tanner's Menelas is an unequal match for her. Yes, the part is extremely demanding—a heldentenor is required and few of those are around. The remainder of the cast is excellent, particularly Celena Shafer's Aithra. The opera is presented in the original 1928 version which restores parts that had been excised for a 1933 Salzburg production. It is difficult to believe this is a "live" recording. There are absolutely no audience sounds, no applause at the end.. The sound perspective also is rather strange and really does not flatter the voices. The orchestra is very close up, singers somewhere in the distance, almost as if they were recorded on a separate stage. The orchestra, which plays the difficult score beautifully, unfortunately sometimes swamps the singers.
The Dynamic recording is from a series of performances in January 2001, and is uniformly splendid—a feast for lovers of Strauss operas. The occasion was the Italian premiere of The Egyptian Helen, also presented in the original Dresden version heard at the premiere June 6th, 1928. As this and the Telarc recording both are the "original version," without having a score it's difficult to explain why the Telarc recording would be about 12 minutes longer, although there is no question that Leon Botstein's tempi are on the leisurely side. How the relatively small opera company in Caligari on the island of Sardinia (Teatro Lirico di Cagliari) can mount a production of this quality is quite amazing. Helen is sung by a young Lithuanian soprano, Vitalija Blinstrubyte. She studied at the Music School of Vilnius, has won several opera competitions and performed in concerts in Stockholm, Mannheim, Hannover, Vienna, Merano, Graz (with JosÈ Cura), and Salzburg. Her roles include Giannette (Elisir d'amore), Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte), Contessa (Marriage of Figaro), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) and Leonora (Trovatore). She has studied at the Salzburg Mozarteum and received the Lilli Lehmann Award. Apparently she has had great success as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and her voice seems to be ideal for Strauss as well. Blinstrubyte's voice is controlled and even throughout the entire range, soaring easily into the stratosphere as she often must do as Helen. To me, frequently her voice is reminiscent of Ljuba Welitsch—and from me that is the highest compliment. I will watch her career with greatest interest—no question she would be a fabulous Salome. Stephen O'Mara made his Vienna State Opera debut in 1991 as Don JosÈ. He has also sung in Berlin (Deutsche Oper), London (Covent Garden), K–ln, Stuttgart, and at the Glyndebourne Festival. O'Mara has sung with opera companies in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Houston, Miami, Seattle and Washington. His repertoire focuses on romantic and post-romantic operas (Foresto in Attila, Radames in Aida, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Andrea ChÈnier and Werther). In the summers of 1999 and 2000 he sang Un ballo en maschera at the Bregenz Festival. He is superb as Menelas, possessing a strong heroic tenor voice that easily handles the high tessitura of what probably is Strauss's most demanding tenor role — and the fact that physically he rather resembles Russell Crowe doubtless will help him in his career. Other unknowns (to me) who acquit themselves admirably are Yelda Kodalli as the enchantress Aithra (another of Strauss's major soprano roles), Regina Mauel as the "Wise Mussel" and Johannes von Duisberg as Altair, the Prince of the Mountains.
I've never heard of GÈrard Korsten; a quick search on the internet disclosed that this young conductor was born in South Africa and now is conductor of the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra. He has recorded two Mozart piano concertos for Chesky and several disks for Marco Polo. Korsten obviously knows his Strauss, building the second act to a rich climax, abetted by the fine playing of the orchestra.
The live digital recording is well-balanced with relatively unobtrusive stage movement. A German/English libretto is provided. Strauss lovers must have this recording. If you wish to hear this rather inconsistently inspired Strauss opera this is the way to do it Both the London/Decca recording and Vienna State Opera live performances with Gwyneth Jones have been deleted. However, with this fine new live recording they will not be missed. Collectors surely also will wish to own the remarkable 1956 live recording with the Bavarian Opera conducted by Joseph Keilberth which features Leonie Rysanek in top form, and Bernd Aldenhoff a fine Menelas (Orfeo d'Or C 424 962).
R.E.B. (June 2003)